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On a misunderstood mousse and the girl who loved it anyway

For a good number of her formative years, my friend Jennifer was constitutionally incapable of following a recipe. It wasn’t an issue of willful aversion, nor or of culinary rebellion, but every time she tried to follow directions, something went horribly wrong. As a pre-teen, for example, Jen whipped up a batch of her mother’s famous banana nut bread as a gift for her teachers, but sadly, her loaves were destined for a different type of fame—an infamy reserved for flat, gummy quick breads entirely lacking in flour. Even cake mix was iffy: one babysitterless night, we together watched a straight-from-the-box angel food cake nearly explode in her parents’ oven. Today, after a recovery period of a decade or two, Jen has patched up her relationship with recipes, but she's still not one to follow the rules. Instead, she's built an impressive record on taking a recipe and running with it. She makes a beautiful improvised beet vinaigrette, an unusual fiddlehead fern ratatouille, and a fiery off-the-cuff chile-balsamic sauce. And, as I learned one foggy night last week in her airy San Francisco apartment, she has a rare genius for finding rogue recipes—the type that suit her best, after all—and saving them from the rubbish bin. Take, for example, her devastatingly good chocolate mousse.

A month or two ago, Jen and her husband Dave, both oenophiles with a weakness for California's small Mom-and-Pop vintners, noticed that their wine rack was looking a bit overstuffed. So they asked a handful of friends to help them “get rid” of a few bottles, and within 24 hours, they had a dozen people and a party in their living room. There were breads, local cheeses, and fruits, but to go with the reds, Jen wanted to serve something chocolate, preferably simple, creamy, and very, very dark. So she typed the words “chocolate ice cream” into Epicurious, and she promptly fell in love—with a very questionable recipe. Its ratings were solidly mediocre, its reviewers ambivalent at best. “This should not be called ice cream,” one fumed; “It doesn't come close to resembling the texture of ice cream. It's like a rich, smooth, cold fudge. I even tried cutting down the eggs and it still wasn't the right texture.” “It's like eating frozen chocolate mousse, not really ice cream,” another noted somewhat disapprovingly. This was clearly a very misunderstood, very badly misnamed recipe. What others might call a washout was exactly what she wanted. As I said, she has a certain genius.

Needless to say, the stuff is almost exactly as its reviewers described it, and happily so: a rich, smooth, frozen chocolate mousse, somewhere between gelato, frozen custard, and whipped cream, dark and complex and fearfully good.

More dense than the average mousse but with the whipped texture of a not-quiet-frozen ice cream, it is hard to pinpoint* but alarmingly easy to eat. The guests at Jen and Dave’s party had no trouble tucking it away, and last week, neither did we, even after a generous farmers’ market dinner of heirloom tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and Stonehouse olive oil; fresh gnocchi topped with morels and brown button mushrooms sautéed in olive oil, white wine, and lemon zest; and Acme pain au levain with Cowgirl Creamery cheeses. As Jen scooped the mousse, Dave poured purply glasses of delicate Homewood zinfandel port, and we sat around the candlelit table, chilly gusts of night air blowing in through the open window. Our dessert spoons sighed through the mousse, and so did we. Sometimes “bad” recipes are awfully good.

*Jen has yet to decide on an appropriate name for this recipe. She tends to refer to it as “my chocolate dessert,” “that chocolate dessert,” or “something with tons of chocolate and cream.” None of these titles, however, do it justice, and neither does an analogy we invented after a few glasses of wine: It's like Cool Whip! It doesn’t freeze solid! It’s like chocolate Cool Whip! The name I have chosen below is my attempt to strike a happy—and fitting—medium.

Dark Chocolate Mousse Ice Cream
Adapted from Epicurious

If time permits, try to make this mousse a day or so ahead of time, so that it has time to properly set up. When it comes to serving, Jen has presented it in several different ways: in bowls; in little high-ball glasses with a few fresh raspberries on top; and, for a picnic, in tiny paper Dixie cups with a dollop of whipped cream. However you choose to serve it, start with small portions; this is serious stuff. And if you want to gild the lily, a ruby or vintage port, or perhaps a black Muscat dessert wine, makes for a lovely accompaniment.

1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
7 ounces best-quality 70% dark chocolate, finely chopped (for her most recent go, Jen used closer to 9 ounces, with superlative results)
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons water
6 large egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt

Bring the milk, cream, and vanilla just to a boil in a small saucepan; then remove from heat and keep warm, covered.

Place the chopped chocolate in a large heatproof bowl.

Stir together ½ cup sugar with water in a medium heavy saucepan, and bring it to a boil over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and washing down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil the syrup, without stirring, gently swirling the pan and washing down crystals, until mixture is a deep golden caramel, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and carefully whisk in the warm cream mixture (the mixture will steam vigorously, and caramel may harden). Cook over low heat, whisking, until the caramel is dissolved.

Beat the yolks with the salt and the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a large bowl, using an electric mixer at high speed, until tripled in volume and thick enough to form a ribbon that takes 2 seconds to dissolve into mixture when the beater is lifted, 3 to 4 minutes in a stand mixer or 6 to 8 with a handheld one.

Add the hot caramel mixture to the yolks in a slow stream, whisking, then transfer the custard to the medium saucepan. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard is slightly thickened and registers 170°F on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Do not allow it to boil.

Press the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into the bowl with the chopped chocolate, and let stand 1 minute. Whisk the mixture until smooth.

Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, about half an hour.

Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker; then transfer it to an airtight container and put it in the freezer to harden, at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours. The mousse will keep well in the freezer for up to a week. Allow it to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes or so before serving.

Yield: about 1 quart.


Blogger Clare Eats said...

That was a great post Molly! I think everybody has their own cooking specialities. Being able to allow a mediocre recipe rise to such sumptious heights by using it correctly is definately a good trait to have.
That chocolate looks so good! Perfect for summer!

12:58 AM, July 22, 2005  
Blogger margrocks said...

holy christmas...that looks/sounds so yummy-to-my-tummy. can't wait to try, just have to get my paws on an ice cream maker...not the soundest investment for a single girl in a teensy studio in queens, new york, but this confection might warrant it.

9:30 AM, July 22, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

I scrolled straight down to the picture - just to see what to expect - then I hurried back to read the entire post 'cause I had to know the ENTIRE story behind something that looked so awfully good! Oh yum. Oh yum. Oh yum. You (and Jennifer) did it again Molly! And I'm still in love with your writing - I just can't decide if I love that or your food the most, tee-hee!:-)

3:05 PM, July 22, 2005  
Blogger McAuliflower said...

What a quirky fussy little recipe! Caramleizing the sugar syrup is an interesting step that you don't see all to often when one isn't making caramel.

Hmmm, she says as she contemplates her evening cooking plans...

7:34 PM, July 23, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Clare Eats, that chocolate is so good! I hope you get to give it a go. It's nobody's chocolate ice cream, but that's more than okay--I'd prefer this anyday.

Margrocks, I need to get my paws on an ice cream maker too. Maybe we should do a cross-country time-share?

Zarah Maria, thank you! You're too much, m'dear!

And McAuliflower, yes, "quirky" is a good word for this recipe! It's not the quickest, easiest in the land, but it's well worth it. The complexity of flavor--not to mention the texture--is enough to inspire a lot of bowl-licking.

11:53 AM, July 25, 2005  
Anonymous Jessie said...

I think I was just moaning out loud. The guy who shares my office is mildly disturbed.

Molly, I find myself talking about you like we're friends. You've become quite the trusted recipe source, and I can't wait to go home & share this one. My housemate is very appreciative--this is a woman who refers, without exaggeration, to the newest issue of Tastes of Italia as her "porn". Hedonism is highly valued in our house.

8:31 AM, July 26, 2005  
Blogger violet said...

oh... that post was beautiful. adding the link to your blog to my favourites.

6:28 PM, July 27, 2005  
Blogger margrocks said...

molly -

i'm up for a x-country ice cream maker time share if you are...

12:38 PM, July 28, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Jessie, it's lovely to meet you. I too have let a few moans eek out while thinking about this mousse, so you're not alone. And tell your housemate that when it comes to this kind of porn, I'm happy to provide.

And violet, thank you! So sweet.

And margrocks, hmm, well, after I posted that comment, I thought, "Wow, what if she really takes me up on it? That could get expensive, all that back-and-forth shipping!" Hmph. For now, I think we should both hit eBay and find little cheap-but-good ones to cram into our tiny respective apartments...

3:54 PM, July 28, 2005  
Blogger margrocks said...

you're probably right. altho' the idea of a bicoastal ice cream maker is intriguing...an ice cream maker more well-traveled, sadly, than i. ah well...think i found one on craigslist for $20. cheaper than the shipping alone...

8:50 PM, July 28, 2005  
Blogger Anna said...

You should name it Moussecream...and let the jokes run wild :D

It looks scrumptious!

2:09 PM, February 18, 2010  
Anonymous Sweet Hearth said...

I've been planning to make this for a few weeks already, and I finally did last night, letting it sit in the fridge overnight to cool down. Well, I just took it out, ready to give it over to my ice cream machine, and I have to say, it took all my will power to freeze it and not just dish it out as mousse right now! It's freezing as I write this, and I keep making excuses to walk by, sticking my nose in to inhale the deep, rich aroma, and then sticking a spoon in...just to make sure it's going all right :) Thanks for the recipe!!

11:13 AM, November 21, 2010  

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